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What’s cooking in India's culinary scene?

brunch Updated: Jan 07, 2012 15:43 IST
Parul Khanna Tewari
Parul Khanna Tewari
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Move over, food and hospitality professionals. Amateurs from other backgrounds are diving into India’s culinary scene and giving us one pioneering eatery after another.

Fashion designer Puja Sahu, a Delhiite from Bihar, often visits her hometown to catch up with friends and relatives. But the trip she made in early 2011 with her friend, journalist Viveta Relan, had a different purpose.

Puja went home specifically to get her grandmother’s book of home recipes. This would be the basis of a restaurant she and Viveta were planning to start. A small place in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat, serving authentic Bihari cuisine.

Seven months later, Puja and Viveta’s venture, Potbelly, is up, running, and popular. And the two young women, designer and journalist respectively, can now add one more label to their professional identities. It’s a word many people dream of adding after their names. The word is restaurateur.

Worth the risk
“If you ask 10 people what is their secret desire, at least six would say they would love to open a restaurant,” says Ritu Dalmia, chef-owner of Delhi’s Diva restaurant. “Food, music and books are wonderful products, and most of us have dreamt or dream of doing something with them.”

Owners: Left to right: Bhupender Singh, Deepender Verma, Puneet Jain and Sanchit Oberoi Previous Jobs: All are engineers The edge: Serves only coffee and Maggi noodles. Lets you laze. PHOTO: Jasjeet Plaha

You’d imagine that people who set up restaurants would either be professional chefs or trained in hospitality management. You could imagine great home cooks deciding to take their talent further even without experience of the business. You’d be right. All that is happening, all over the country.

But there’s also a new kind of restaurateur on the culinary scene today. These people are not chefs or even cooks. They have no training in hospitality. And often, they have little or no experience of establishing a business. But that hasn’t stopped them from doing more than just toying with the idea of opening an eatery. Rather, they aim to put their money where your mouth is.

“These days, people with little monetary backing, who have nothing to do with the food industry, are opening eateries just because they love to eat or entertain,” says Manu Mohinder, managing director, Under One Roof Hotel Consultants, Delhi.

“In the last three years we have seen more and more professionals IIT graduates, MBAs opening restaurants with their own savings, with the aid of bank loans or by mortgaging their property.”

And this seems to be happening countrywide. In 2009, Mumbai-based Mishali Sanghani who worked in her family’s export business and Suren Joshi, car stylist and enthusiast, decided to open a restaurant and by mid-2010, Pali Village Café had arrived.

In Delhi, engineers Bhupender, Sanchit, Deepender and Sumit opened Thadi in September, a recreation of the tea stall outside their college in Jaipur. Before Thadi opened, travel writer and photographer Ajay Jain opened Kunzum Café in Delhi’s trendy Hauz Khas Village.

Owners: Raman Macker (right) and Gaurav Batra (left) Previous jobs: Online B-2-B finance websites The edge: Neighbourhood family Tex-mex restaurant. Sancho’s is one of Dish Hospitality’s many. Restaurants Photo: Puneet Chandok; Location: Sancho’s

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Sunil and Seema Mattoo, both from the entertainment industry, had set up KongPoush, specialising in Kashmiri cuisine in 2008. And way back in 2001, business and finance professionals Raman Macker and Gaurav Batra opened Juhu’s first contemporary European fine dining restaurant, Rain, and now are the proud directors of Dish Hospitality, owners of Sancho’s and Aurus among other restaurants.

Not one of these people knew anything about food or the business of it before they started. All they had was a thought and the determination to see it through.

“We just wanted a place in Bandra where we could see ourselves hanging out regularly,” says Mishali Sanghani, partner at Pali Village Café, while for Viveta, a restaurant was the perfect escape from the stresses of daily work.

“I had had enough of working in an online portal for a big firm where every idea had to go through myriad processes,” she says. “So I wanted to do something that gave me creative control.”

And for Ajay of Kunzum Cafe, opening a café was the most natural way to expand his business interests. “By having people here, I am interacting every day with like-minded people who are getting to know of the travel website I run,” he explains.

Be different
An idea is one thing, but then come the financials. And then comes the learning and then comes the slog. Before all that happens, however, the idea must be refined.

“Restaurants have limited shelf-lives, shrinking with our attention spans,” says Raman Macker of Dish Hospitality. “So it’s challenging to be innovative.”

The most basic thing to work on, however is the food.

“People are looking for newer experiences and are also developing experimental palates,” says Manu Mohinder. So food that is out of the ordinary grabs attention. That explains the success of Delhi’s Yeti, The Himalayan Kitchen, which specialises in Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese food.

Yeti’s owners, Pinky Ardahun Passkh from Meghalaya and Tenzing Sonam, who is half Nepali, half Tibetan introduced items they loved to eat. Now it’s a wildly popular restaurant, packed with people looking for authentic, unfamiliar food.

In Mumbai, where Kashmiri cuisine is not so well known, KongPoush was very popular.

“We were a novelty, the only restaurant that specialised in Kashmiri cuisine,” says Seema Mattoo. “And we made sure that we maintained the authenticity of our food.”

However, as many amateur restaurateurs find, even novel, exciting food isn’t enough. There needs to be a mood among potential customers to accept something different.

Owners: Pinky Ardahun Passkh (in the picture) and Tenzing Sonam Previous jobs: Pinky was a student and Tenzing worked in his family business The edge: Serves Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhuatanese. Food Photo: Jasjeet Plaha

For instance, from 2010 onwards, with food-related TV shows like MasterChef catching viewers’ imaginations, different and unfamiliar became catchwords. But in 2001 when Raman Macker and Gaurav Batra set up Rain in Juhu, Mumbai, the restaurant was empty for months because the food was so unfamiliar. “Juhu was a very different place then,” says Raman.

“Olive had just opened doors, and people were still grappling with the concept of subtle flavours and authentic European cuisine. We actually had customers complain to the staff that there was no roti-sabzi!”

It always helps, though, if the food is good and affordable. Which is why some of the proprietors of these restaurants offer something that few other eateries do home food. The kind of food that was usually seen as too unsophisticated to put on commercial menus, but which is delicious, authentic and reasonably priced.

This is a trend that big restaurant chains are moving to as well, says Rohit Aggarwal, managing director, Lite Bite Foods, owners of the Zambar, Asia 7 and Fresco chains.

“When our chef left Zambar suddenly, we met Arun Kumar, a filmmaker passionate about food, who believes in cooking food the way it is cooked at home,” says Aggarwal. “This concept has taken the restaurant to a new level.”

Owners: Suren Joshi (left) and Mishali Sanghani (right) Previous jobs: Suren was a car stylist and Mishali worked in her family business The edge: European café feel. Photo: Hemant Padalkar

Grab attention
Once the food is sorted, positioning and marketing comes into play. “When you go to a restaurant, you go for the food, but also for the overall experience,” says Raman. “It’s essential to create a position for your restaurant, where the customer knows what to expect and gets that.”

So unique concepts and experiences must be thought out. When Ajay Jain started Kunzum Café, for instance, he didn’t charge for the coffee it served. Instead, it was left to the customer to decide how much it was worth. Curious customers arrived in droves.

“They can walk in at 11 and sit here till 7 and do whatever they feel like in between,” says Ajay.

Similarly, Thadi positions itself as a place where you can put up your feet and lounge. “Authors come in and work on their books for hours,” says Bhupender Singh, one of Thadi’s four partners. “We also have bands come and jam. Thadi is like a college canteen.”

It all sounds like great fun, but the practicalities of commerce can be heart-breaking. It means learning on the job. And it means learning that location is everything. “Everything else can be learnt, but not this,” says Mishali of Pali Village Café.

Delhi seems to have it easier for now artsy Hauz Khas Village and craftsy Shahpur Jat that already attract a well-travelled, open-minded crowd are perfect places for small eclectic restaurants. And though rents are climbing, they’re still affordable just.

But in Mumbai, where real estate costs are some of the highest in the world, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the restaurant. Though the Pali Village Café partners struck lucky with location, the Mattoos of KongPoush had to close their flourishing restaurant in 2011 and shift it to Goa. Their location in the suburb of Goregaon didn’t work for them, and the rent was too high.

And then there are all the fiddling details of putting the restaurant in operation. With no experience of how these things are done, things can go crazy.

“The first few weeks after opening, we were just panicked,” recalls Bhupender of Thadi. And sometimes Viveta feels that way too." “For us, unlike a really professional place, every day means new learning, new challenges,” she says.

Owner: Ajay Jain Previous job: Travel writer and photographer The edge: Serves free coffee and cookies. Customers decide how much to pay (or not). Photo: Jasjeet Plaha

“We don’t have a foolproof method of functioning yet. Just after we opened, our cook had to go to Bihar for Chhat Puja and everything fell apart – the quality of food, the service… We had customers, but not much to serve.”

And while Suren and Mishali of Pali Village Café credit their chef, Conrad, with the success of the kitchen management, they admit that even now, more than a year after their restaurant opened, they haven’t quite cracked service.

“Besides a few old hands, the servers keep changing as happens often in this industry,” says Mishali. “At the end of the day, we might brief everybody but they have their own style when interacting with people.”

It takes time for a new restaurant to settle down, so marketing is important. Social networking can bring in customers; the Potbelly girls sent out free samples of their food to other store owners in Shahpur Jat and in-restaurant events also help. But most important is the food, says Manu Mohinder. If that makes sense to customers, word will just spread on its own.

It isn’t hard to keep a restaurant going, says Ritu Dalmia.

“People are earning more these days, so taking the financial step of opening a restaurant is easier than it was,” she says, while Manu adds that he foresees the birth of many more small restaurants and cafés serving unconventional food. The food business isn’t rocket science. If you look at the front operations as well as the back operations, you will be a success.”

Owners: Viveta Relan (right) and Puja Sahu (left) Previous jobs: Viveta was a journalist and Puja, a fashion designer The edge: Serves Bihari food. Photo: Jasjeet Plaha

If you Want to open a restaurant, Make sure you...

1. Are creative: Have an identifiable USP. You need to offer people something unique (but not weird). Everyone’s opening up to newer experiences. Cash in on the trend. For instance, an eatery specialising in healthy fast food or tea from around the world would work great.

2. Select your customer base: And keep pricing reasonable. There are too many fancy restaurants with inflated rates around. Eating at home is becoming expensive too. That’s why the concept of good, interesting food at reasonable rates really works.

Yeti
Owners: Pinky Ardahun Passkh (in the picture) and Tenzing Sonam
Previous jobs: Pinky was a student and Tenzing worked in his family business
The edge: Serves Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhuatanese food

From HT Brunch, January 8
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